George Herbert: The Country Parson and the Temple

george herbertBorn in 1593 into an aristocratic English family, George Herbert was educated at Westminster School and Cambridge University. After graduating from Cambridge, Herbert served in the Parliament for one term (1624) as the representative of Montgomeryshire in support of King James’ peaceful policies towards Spain. Once that term was over, Herbert returned to his original career goal of becoming a priest in Church of England.  Accordingly, Herbert was ordained as a deacon in the fall of 1624 and a priest in 1630. Shortly before his ordination into the priesthood, Herbert had married Jane Danvers on March 5, 1629. Together they moved to Bemerton, a small rural village in the south of England, where Herbert was the parish rector until his death in 1633.

Both of Herbert’s works (“The Country Parson” and “The Temple”) were published after his death, making it hard to determine the actual date in which they were written. In the intro to “The Country Parson,” Herbert writes that he “resolved to set down the Form and Character of a true Pastor, that I may have a Mark to aim at” (page 54). With this in mind, it is assumed that Herbert pinned most of the work in the five years between when he was ordinated as a deacon and then a priest. The content of the work carries with it the assumption that everyone living in England at the time was a member of the Church of England. The goal of a parish pastor was then to be “the Deputy of Christ for the reducing of Man to the Obedience of God” through teaching and personal example (page 31).

The second major work of Herbert is a collection of religious poems written at various points in Herbert’s life. Combined into one volume, “The Temple” is divided into three sections with individual poems fitting the tone of their section. The first section, “The Church Porch”, is actually one long poem akin to Proverbs with practical advice for believers. The second section was simply called “The Church” and focuses on the prayers of the believers with echoes of Psalms and The Song of Solomon within the poems. The third and final section, “The Church Militant,” include poems about the history of the church similar to how the Old Testament narrative talk about the history of the people of Israel.

The poems themselves were filled with biblical language and imaginary. A.C. Charity called the technique that Herbert used “applied typology” as he used the typological language of the Bible to talk about present reality rather than a past event (page 41-42). The poem “Aaron” is a perfect example of this technique as Herbert contracts the actions of Aaron the High Priest with his own situations in being a country parson. Another technique that Herbert used was pattern poetry with the shape of the words on the page reflecting the content of the poem.  “The Altar” is an example of this type of poems with the words of poem creating a picture of an altar while talking an altar.

While not a poetic connoisseur, the poems of “The Temple” did strike me as beautiful and carrying within them a lasting quality. I like how they are packed full of biblical typology and imaginary while relating to the practical world of life. “The Church Porch” was my favorite poem with the first half carrying the best material. “Jesu” was also a favorite with the imaginary of breaking Jesus’ name with our actions only to discover that he is the one who eases our pain.

“The Country Parson,” on the other hand, seemed to me to be one of rules and regulations. I understand what Herbert was trying to do; yet I personally find that such a high mark becomes a heavy burden to bear rather than a target to aim towards. In this, Herbert’s work reminded me of Gregory the Great’s book “Pastoral Care.” However, even with such a danger, both works have a vein of gold within them that can and should be mined.